Chapter 3: Overseas to Australia

Speculation ran high as to where the Division was going. In early February 1942, the 41st was relieved of defense duty by the 3d Division, pulled back to Fort Lewis and prepared for movement overseas. When the alert came there was a hurried and sorrowful exodus of wives who had been living in the area, some of them for almost as long as their husbands had been in federal service. Now in these last days they thronged into the Fort Lewis cantonment at every opportunity to be with their men for as many as possible of the remaining few precious hours.  Late that month the l62d Infantry, the 641st Tank Destroyer Battalion and the 41st Reconnaissance Troop moved across country by train to Fort Dix, New Jersey.  On 1 March the men began boarding the SS Santa Paula and Uruguay. The convoy left Brooklyn Navy Yard on 3 March. This group was a part of the legendary “forty days and forty nights” convoy, this being the amount of time required for the trip. This was the beginning of troopship routine for the 41st. Here was the medium-size ship, crammed with many more men than it was built for and taking the longest route to its destination. Here, too, was the endless standing in line for more than eight hours a day in order to get through the chow line. There were drills and schools and the fascination of watching the ink-blue water rush by.

The first few days were fine. There was plenty of company and it was a new experience for most of the men. The climate was ideal. Finally, however, the red roofs of Panama loomed in sight and marked the beginning of the intense heat which was to become a part of the men’s lives for many months to come. The unwary became seared and blistered and many experienced the feeling of having their energy drained to such an extent that climbing a few stairs to chow was almost more than the food was worth. The ten days’ sailing along the Equator was the worst.  Some of the troops drew assignments as antiaircraft gun crews and lookouts. Two dogs, which were not on any passenger list, became a part of ship life and were readily adopted as mascots.

After the ships left the Canal there was no land for several weeks, nothing but the incredibly blue water and heat. One canteen of water a day was allowed and this proved to be a small quantity for the Equator’s climate. Other ships in the convoy were even worse off for water, although some of the precious fluid had been taken on at Panama. Salt water was used for bathing and there was fresh water a half hour a day, or perhaps every other day, for shaving.  On 25 March the convoy stopped at Bora Bora in the Society Islands. The men encountered their first piratical natives, who immediately surrounded the ships to sell coconuts and other native merchandise. Grass skirts were sold for the fabulous price of six dollars and it was later said these were manufactured in the United States. The natives seemed to know only two prices—“one dollah” and “six dollah.” It was here that the men learned that American cigarettes were good bargaining agents and attractive as legal tender.  During the negotiations the natives suddenly streaked madly for shore—a conning tower was moving through the channel. Soon six moss-covered American submarines hauled into sight. These were “hot” waters.  The Jap fleet was around and many times troops on the island held their breath as a part of the enemy navy steamed by the hidden entrance to this secret base which was isolated from help.

Swimming was permitted but the men found the water too hot to be enjoyable. No troops were allowed ashore but some swam in to bring back coral and other trinkets. They discovered what ugly, slow-healing cuts coral can give.

The convoy crossed the International Dateline, led by a New Zealand gunboat, on 31 March and shortly thereafter split, one portion heading for Brisbane, Australia, while the Santa Paula and Uruguay, which had developed engine trouble, started for Auckland, New Zealand, arriving there on Good Friday. Again the men were not permitted to go ashore and had to be content with watching natives waving bottles of beer, the first they had seen since leaving Fort Dix.  The ships left late the following day, going to Melbourne, Victoria, via a very rough and stormy Tasman Sea. Those few who had begun to get the feeling that they were really meant for the Navy soon began changing their minds as more and more men went through the awful agony of seasickness.

Australia was sighted 9 April and the following day the second contingent of the 41st Division set foot on the soil “Down Under.” It was a dirty group of men, starved for the sight of new faces and excited at the sights of a new land, that stepped ashore that day. The “forty-forty” trip was ended and one man summed up the opinion of the group when he quipped: “ I used to think this guy Magellan was a great man. Now I think he was a damned fool.”

As they came down the gangplank the men whistled like a covey of canaries; they were greeted with “ Hi, Yank.” Attempting to mimic the strange accent, one soldier shouted, “ I sye, I see a lyedy.” While the convoy carrying the l62d Infantry was sweeping down the Canal Zone the163d Infantry, I67th Field Artillery Battalion, Division Headquarters with General Fuller and General Rilea, Division Headquarters Company, 41st Signal Company, 116th Engineers. 116th Medical and 116th Quartermaster Battalions gathered at the San Francisco Port of Embarkation during the early morning hours of 19 March. By 1500 hours they were losing sight of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Some ten thousand troops were aboard the British Queen Elizabeth, largest vessel afloat. Also in the convoy were the Coolidge and Mariposa. Escorting the convoy was the cruiser, Chester; later the British cruiser, Exeter, which had won fame in the destruction of the German Graf Spee, covered the convoy. These ships sailed along the coast of South America, stopping at the Marquesas Islands where they were refueled. This contingent became the first group of Sunsetters to arrive m Australia, landing there 6 April.  Because the Queen Elizabeth could not be accommodated at Melbourne she was unloaded at Sydney. The troops and cargo were transported to Melbourne by small Dutch ships and by rail.

The Americans were received joyfully in Australia, where, during those uncertain times, desperate plans were being made to defend the continent from Brisbane to the south. The Australians, fearful that the Japs would not be stopped, were burying their silver and many of them had moved out of Queensland. The Japs had air superiority and had been bombing Port Moresby in New Guinea and Darwin in northern Australia just about as they pleased. Some of the people wept as the men poured ashore, for these American fighting men were a welcome sight. What Australian combat troops there were had been marching back and forth on the African desert with the British Army for two long years. Now the Japs were poised, ready to strike. It was not an enviable position for this land, which is about as large as the United States in area but has only a population between seven and eight million.  Australia was a strange continent. It was apparent in the way the houses were built, the look of the people and the very smell of the place. The men soon learned that the Australians tell the size of a place by the number of hotels it has. Each hotel houses a pub and the number of pubs seem proportional to the number of people.

The troops entrained and moved to Seymour, sixty-five miles inland from Melbourne. This camp had been used by the Australians during World War I and there were a few Aussie units in the area when the Division arrived.

The first meal was a shock. The Aussies had prepared it. They had two oil drums made into cookers.  One held mutton stew while the other had the Australian version of coffee. Shortly thereafter American mess sergeants, using American methods, went to work.  Men gulped the second day as they watched two dirty militiamen haul in a load of bread in a flat-bed truck, much like we haul cord wood. As soon as the bread was unloaded, garbage was put on the trucks. After two days of this procedure some changes were made and the Aussies contended that the Yanks were too fussy.

In April the remainder of the Division, including the 186th Infantry, 146th, 218th and 205th Field Artillery Battalions and Division Artillery Headquarters with General Coane entrained at Fort Lewis for San Francisco.  The trip to Frisco was pretty wonderful since the trains were composed of the best Pullmans available, the food was plentiful and good, and the stations of the small railroad towns usually were crowded with people whose sons, fathers, brothers and friends were on those trains. To many on the trains the country was new, but to many more the trip was old and familiar, the names of the peaceful little towns reading like a summer vacation guide book.

In the early morning hours of 22 April the men arrived in San Francisco. Weighted down by the old blue barracks bags, they detrained, marched into a buzzing troop-filled pier, exchanged the old-time porkpie helmets for the newer models, filed up the gangplanks and into the cavernous depths of such floating hotels as the Argentina and Matsonia. The convoy, which had in its group the first of the slow, ugly Liberty ships, gathered in the bay beneath the Golden Gate. A large part of the 32d Infantry Division was also in this group. Three days after loading, the last elements of the 41st sailed under an incomparable California sunset which made the bay city look white as carved marble. The ships passed beneath the majestic and graceful bridge, through the channel that led to the strange dark sea and thousands of enemy-dominated miles.

Men of the Sunset Division clung to that last glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge. No other bridge in the world ever spanned so many lonely, eager, baffled, brave departing men. No other bridge on earth was to become such a symbol of return. No other bridge

would arch above so many home-coming, tearfully happy men. No other bridge would ever mean so much to men of Oregon, Kansas, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. In the rain forests of Buna, Salamaua, Hollandia, Zamboanga and Palawan, the memory of this bridge shone before eyes that were dead with great weariness, upon hearts that remembered it as brighter than the rays of the tropical sun, and braver, infinitely braver, than the glories of Rome. There probably were men of the 41st who died with that hazy image mixed up in their last mortal dreams.

The last of the 41st arrived at Melbourne on 13 May, debarked the following day and went to Seymour to join the remainder of the unit. To the men of the 41st had fallen the honor of putting the first complete fighting unit of United States troops into Australia. This was to be the beginning of a whole new chapter in the life of the Division, a life to be told through the medium of a new language, new names, new expressions, new interpretations. Australia was the gateway to the islands that irrevocably must lead to Tokyo and complete victory.

The entire Division now was in the vicinity of Seymour.  The surrounding country became the site of hard, extremely thorough training. The countryside was bare. Although the hills looked green, when one set foot on them he found patches of grass as big as a hand with coarse gravel dirt between them. Thousands of grazing sheep kept the hills that way. Few trees were evident and these were eucalyptus, or gum trees, as the Aussies called them. It rained almost constantly and keeping dry became a major problem to all.  By the end of May the Division was busily engaged in training and continuing to build the cold, muddy camp. Training was hard. Thirty-mile-a-day marches were made and these were carried out for three consecutive days. Everything in the book was practiced as the men slogged through muddy days and nights.  The artillery began firing at Pucapunial, but in the latter part of May began moving to Rockhampton, Queensland, where it trained through the next four months.

Newspapers of Melbourne and Sydney daily followed the unrelenting enemy advance down the coast of New Guinea, and the battle of the Coral Sea was to the men of the 41st the only bright spot in the darkening lining of the military cloud.  Melbourne became a week-end haven and shopping day stomping ground for the Yanks. It was a blue-law town. Trains jammed with American soldiers arrived late Saturday night and everything was closed on Sunday.  There were no movies, and even a suitable eating establishment was hard to find. However, the people were friendly and any man wishing to do so could week-end with an Australian family.

Scotch whiskey sold for eighteen shillings, which was about three dollars in American money. The beer was deceptive. Although some brands were as good as anything produced in the States, the stuff was quite potent as many men learned in a short time. The Yank soldiers were popular with the Australian girls and the high regard shown women astonished the Australian women. In this land the women let the men have the spotlight. The man is the important person in any couple. One Australian girl explained the comparison when she said:  “An American, if he is taking a girl out, will probably send flowers first. He will take the girl to a good dinner. He will ask her where she wants to go and what she wants to drink, if anything. An Aussie will come up to your house for the evening and bring a bottle of beer, which he probably will drink himself.” It was generally conceded that Master Sergeant Chester E. Wallace of Division Artillery Headquarters was the first man to carry a swagger stick, which was the latest vogue. Saturday nights found the men relaxing; on Sundays the high and low churches were filled to capacity. Collins Street was famous for its hundreds of milk bars. On Little Collins one found burlesque and itinerant offerings of stock “Mikados” and “Pinafores.” The men smoked Craven-A’s and drank hock, went boating on the St. Kilda, nightclubbed at a dozen lavish places, and took communion in St. James. “One Dozen Roses” was topping the Hit Parade back home and this catchy tune was fast becoming the favorite with the men overseas. To the men of the 41st, in those first two months, Australia was Melbourne, Melbourne was heaven, and heaven was theirs, for the taking.

But all of this came to an end on 19 July 1942, and the Division closed in on Rockhampton, where it found a semi-tropical climate and better training country.  The arduous rail trip from Seymour to Rockhampton meant unloading and reloading at every State line as track gauges changed. For several days the Division monopolized Australian trains over two thousand miles. The Aussies themselves tell jokes about their trains, but like the weather, nobody seems to do anything about it. One time the Queensland Railways lost an entire string of cars somewhere on the 400-mile single track between Rockhampton and Brisbane. The trip was not invigorating but it certainly was enlightening.  From New South Wales to Queensland was a jump of a thousand miles and the change from the wet chill of Melbourne to the dry heat of Rockhampton was an acclimatical problem. Olive drabs were shed for the first time and the men blossomed forth in the khaki that was to be the official uniform from Queensland to the Golden Gate, via the Southwest Pacific.

At Rockhampton the battle training became realistic as the men readied themselves for jungle and amphibious warfare. Queensland was hot and the troops spent week-ends rushing for buses to the beach at Yeppoon and Rockhampton. The 163d, 186th, and 162d Infantry Regiments, respectively, went down to Toorbul (Terrible) Point on the coast north of Brisbane, a battalion at a time, for amphibious training under the Australian Army. Each battalion trained on the Fitzroy River prior to training at Toorbul Point.  All except the 3d Battalion of the l62d Infantry spent a week in rest camp near Yeppoon following the amphibious training. Meanwhile some of the junior officers were sent to Australian-conducted tactical schools.  Everything pointed to battle in New Guinea and the men were ready.

The artillery conducted its training on the Coberra range, which echoed daily to the thunder of 105s as cursing gunners manned their weapons and sweating second lieutenants learned the hard way of conducting fire. The tables of equipment and organization within the artillery now called for a complete air liaison section, which allocated two L-4 Piper Cubs to Division Artillery Headquarters and two each to the four battalions, a total of ten. Pilots were to be staff sergeants while officers were to supervise and handle administration.  Later the enlisted pilots were authorized commissions.  Other innovations were introduced into the artillery during these months of training. The l67th Artillery Battalion left Rockhampton for Townsville, Australia, in January 1943, where it became a horse-drawn, pack outfit. The 218th Battalion put aside its 155s for a time and experimented with 75s which were carried in jeeps and could be broken down into the integral parts for easy transport. Captain (then First Lieutenant) Donald E. MacArthur of the l46th Battalion, already was beginning to think about a method of firing on targets using a system which was to become known as Radial Line Plotting.

Lieutenant General Robert L. Eichelberger and his I Corps command had arrived in Rockhampton in August 1942, and from this command the 41st inherited two necessary but galling rituals: first, motor stables; second, field tests conducted by Corps officers every twelve weeks, covering everything from administration to tactical problems. Seven months of strenuous and continuous tactical training was being rounded out.  Training got tougher and tougher and the tourist heyday in Australia definitely was over.

Commanders throughout the Division had made a religion of motor stables and first sergeants were tearing out their hair over the commandments and golden rules of checking horns and lights. Check this, check that, check, check, check! Supply sergeants began issuing the ill-fated zoot suit, the camouflaged jungle pack, machetes, hunting knives, ponchos which absorbed the rain instead of shedding it, fishing tackle, dubbin, hammocks and herringbone twills. Atabrine was to come a little later. The best noncoms were being trained to replace officers in the event of battle casualties. Some were bundled off to officer candidate schools and seen no more.  A few rejoined the Division but many joined the 1st Cavalry Division, the 32d Division, or one of the many independent units which were pouring into Australia at that time. Some of the men were receiving commissions by direct appointment.

When the men were not working they were turned loose to blow off pent-up steam. Rockhampton and Yeppoon were the two towns which bore the brunt of the “attack” on week-ends and occasional three-day passes, and they always were filled to capacity. Long remembered will be such names as the Bluebird Club, the Golden Gate Cafe, Earl’s Court Theatre, the Red Cross Club, the Catholic Club, the Botanical Gardens and the ancient bridge that was like some carousel ride in an amusement park except that the speed limit across its arched crumbling bed was eight miles an hour. And who w i l l ever forget Yeppoon, the blue-surfed vacation spot with its golden sandy beaches and milk bars that ran out of everything except sarsaparilla by 1500 hours each Saturday afternoon